Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 14 December 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Features: Directors: Werner Herzog
Reviews: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe
The aspects of Fitzcarraldo’s production are various in their notoriety. And if you’ve heard of or seen Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, you’re likely familiar with many of them. Familiarity with Werner Herzog’s film, or even with reviews of it (virtually every one mentions its near-foiled production), allows Blank’s film to achieve a unique significance—it’s Fitzcarraldo with affirmed and not sublime biography; in essence, the same film without the pretense of fiction.
The opening footage displays Blank’s camera pointed out the window of small commuter airplane. It lands in a grass field strewn in puddles of mud. As several anecdotes involving Herzog and his crew will soon illustrate, traveling to the shooting locations are usually tedious in this film. The small plane contacts the soil and waves of mud shortly envelope it. You doubt the plane will be able to take off from the same airstrip.
Herzog evokes his title character in Fitzcarraldo’s preproduction. He plays soccer with the Indians, and vows to somehow contribute to their territory conflict in exchange for their work in the film, which involves the formidable labor of hoisting Fitzcarraldo’s behemoth steamship over an isthmus—it sounds like a raw deal, but the Indians are paid twice the country’s minimum wage.
I found Burden of Dreams’ most fascinating inclusion to be the footage of Jason Robards and Mick Jagger (this is also included in My Best Fiend) as Fitzcarraldo and his sidekick. Robards acquired dysentery, was forced by his doctor to abandon the production, and Jagger departed shortly therafter, due to a commitment to a tour with the Rolling Stones. Herzog replaced both with the enormously recalcitrant Klaus Kinski, and excised the role of the sidekick. Kinski also resembles his fictional counterpart, refusing to partake in the indigenous social practices (including an alcoholic beverage that’s fermented by spitting into it), and shouting at the cast and crew. He’s arguably wilder than the jungle that surrounds them; at least, he’s as caustic an element that threatens the completion of this film.
Soon after Kinski’s replacing, we see footage of the same scene Robards and Jagger had enacted (a scene in which Fitzcarraldo announces, from a bell tower, his intention to deliver an opera to rural Peru). The difference is staggering. In their mere seconds on screen, Robards and Jagger are noticeably out of place. Kinski’s adulated screams (in comparison to the former pair’s mere shouts) are exhilarating, and another in a wealth of elements that contribute to the miracle of Fitzcarraldo.